Sniffing healthy soil

No-till and cover crop consultant Steve Groff of Lancaster County, PA, takes a deep whiff of soil to check its bouquet, the sweet smell of fertility, the result of managing his farm fields with soil health practices. 

As he has dozens of times since stumbling into the benefits of cover cropping and no-till farming nearly 50 years ago, Pennsylvania farmer Leroy Bupp set up his props for a talk on soil health at a large Chesapeake Bay conference.

There were goofy moments, like calling out volunteers from the audience to replicate how worms breed. But the real wow moment came when he dropped two clods of soil — one from his no-tilled, cover-cropped farm and one from a neighbor’s conventionally tilled field — into beakers of water.

The neighbor’s dirt quickly dissolved and fell to the bottom, showing how easily it would be whisked away in a rainstorm. But Bupp’s handful of dirt stayed clumped together even as holes from worms, bugs and air passages soaked up some of the water.

“Mother Nature made soil work, then with tillage we destroyed this,” he told the audience, now riveted. “In tilled soil, without air spaces, the water is running off into the Bay. Leave the soil alone!” said the 75-year-old Bupp.

Relatively quiet and driven by farmers themselves, a revolution of sorts is happening in agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay region: soil health. It’s a way of improving the soil that reduces runoff pollution in the Bay region while helping farmers turn a profit.

Farmers have tilled the earth into submission for thousands of years. But now, growing numbers are spreading the gospel about a fundamental shift in which soil is left unplowed and covered with a diverse mix of plants in all seasons.

“This soil health movement is big, growing and critical,” said Lamonte Garber of the Stroud Water Research Center, a world-renowned freshwater research facility in Pennsylvania.

Instead of constantly pumping fertilizers and pesticides into worn-out soil, a more hands-off approach encourages an underground living ecosystem of bugs, worms, fungi, microbes and bacteria to make the soil healthier and less threatening to the environment.

Clover cover crop in PA

A winter cover crop of crimson clover in a farm field in Clinton County, PA. It not only helps to fix nitrogen in the soil but can be used for forage. (Lisa Blazure)

The result, over time, is a soil with a rich, intertwined web of living matter. You may have heard it called soil health, regenerative agriculture or carbon farming.

While no-till and cover crops are key ingredients, soil health is broader than those two environmentally friendly farming methods and can also incorporate changes to crop rotation, livestock grazing and other actions.

“It’s using the soil not simply as a medium. It’s a win-win. Farmers can cut costs, and we can clean up the water,” said Franklin Egan, of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Though each farm is different, farmers generally see benefits within a couple of years, and soil fertility increases each year for up to 20 years or so without drop-offs in crop yields from cutting back on commercial fertilizer. 

Proven dividends of this laissez-faire approach include less soil runoff and more nutrients being manufactured by the plants themselves, reducing the need for other sources of fertilizer. The protective layer of plants hinders the growth of weeds, and organic matter in the soil discourages plant diseases. Beneficial insects attack crop pests. Herbicide and fertilizer costs are cut ­— though generally not eliminated — and farmers have more time for other farm chores because they are not plowing fields. Cover crops can be used as feed for livestock or grazed, saving farmers more money.

Over time, as all of the underground elements team up, soil structure improves too — increasing its ability to act like a sponge to both hold more moisture during storms and release water during dry periods. Farmers call it weatherproofing their fields: A single acre can hold 25,000 gallons more water than one that is tilled.

While not tilling soil would seem to invite more weeds and insect pests, advocates of soil health say the use of pesticides and herbicides can be vastly reduced because crops grown in healthy soil resist pest pressure and allow natural enemies of pests to thrive. And, the use of cover crops suppresses the growth of weeds.

The constant layer of plants also sucks up earth-warming carbon. According to a 2018 study by government and university scientists, the use of cover crops on all of the nation’s farmland could remove 103 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year from the air. That’s equivalent to eliminating harmful global warming emissions from 21 million vehicles.

That would help farming become part of the climate change solution rather than be part of the problem. Currently, agriculture accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For the consumer, crops grown in fields with healthier soil have more nutrition and essential oils that aid immune systems and bodily functions.

“I just feel this is the future of agriculture and this is where we need to be at a national level,” said Lisa Blazure, coordinator of a newly created soil health position at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania.

Cover crop

Cover crops planted in farm fields for the winter not only bind the soil, but help insect life and suck up carbon dioxide.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal government’s chief conservation agency for farmers, was formed after severe dust storms during the Depression ravaged U.S. prairies — a landmark example of the price to be paid for poor soil management. The agency was slow to embrace soil health but now is one of its main cheerleaders, calling it “the next frontier of conservation.” Tilling the soil, it says, “is like burning down the house” and destroying the microbiological community under the surface.

Agency handouts urge farmers not to “treat your soil like dirt.” One says, “We believe improving the health of our nation’s soil is one of the most important endeavors of our time.”

Advocates say a soil health ethos also is badly needed to keep the nation’s soil from disappearing. In the last 40 years, it’s estimated that one-third of all the world’s food-production soil has been lost to erosion. Soil is vanishing 10–100 times faster than it is being formed.

“There’s soil and then there’s dirt. Farming is a degraded resource right now and we’ve kind of accepted that as normal,” Blazure said. “We used to have the viewpoint of what can the soil do for the plant. With soil health, we realize it’s not a one-way street. The plants and that crop are doing as much for the soil as the soil is doing for the plant.”

For the Chesapeake Bay, the movement could be fortuitous, over time reducing significant amounts of runoff sediment and nutrients flowing into the Bay, though it is unlikely to be adopted on a wide enough scale in time to help states such as Pennsylvania meet its reduction goals for sediment and nutrient by 2025.

“Our hope is it will help the Bay. We really want to try to help the scientific community understand what the impact of healthier soils is on delivery of pollutants to waterways,” said Garber of the Stroud Water Research Center.

PennFuture, a Pennsylvania environmental group, now considers soil heath practices more important than planting streamside buffers for the state to attain its Bay cleanup commitments.

State and federal farm agencies are pushing to make soil heath a standard land management practice in Bay states. And research institutions are rushing to complete studies to prove the benefits farmers have found on their own.

In 2019, Pennsylvania added soil health, for the first time, to the seven priority conservation practices for farmers listed in its most recent Bay cleanup plan.

And a state program that gives Pennsylvania farmers tax credits in exchange for using conservation practices now includes soil health best management practices.

Elements of the soil health movement are starting to take hold in the region. Pennsylvania farmers have led the way nationally in bringing no-till agriculture to the fore. In 2002, 20% of farmland in the state used no-till methods to grow crops. That figure has risen to 60%, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Maryland ranks first in the nation for the use of cover crops on farms. In 2017, the legislature created a Healthy Soils Program and instructed the Department of Agriculture to expand the adoption of soil health practices. Agency officials estimate that more than half of the state’s ag fields use cover crops and conservation tillage.

“My impression is soil heath is pretty mainstream in Maryland. Our farmers are progressive thinkers,” said Alisha Mulkey, head of the Healthy Soils Program.

Virginia ranks third in the nation in the percentage of farm fields using cover crops.

New York has spent $5 million since 2015 on climate resilient farming. Soil health practices are a linchpin. And in 2018, legislation was passed to create a two-year soil health project.

The federal government is investing in Bay region soil health, too. Last fall, Maryland got a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to launch a $2.3-million program to get 150 more farmers to adopt soil health practices.

Another grant and matching funds will support a $2-million program at Virginia Tech to help the Virginia Soil Health Coalition expand soil health practices in the Shenandoah Valley and the lower Eastern Shore. The effort also will educate consumers and producers about the benefits of soil health.

The Stroud Water Research Center will spend $2.9 million to get 4,500 farmers in Pennsylvania to turn to cover crops, no-till and rotational grazing through farmer-to-farmer soil health “hubs.”

Big ag business is starting to jump on the bandwagon as well.

General Mills, Tyson Foods, Pepsi, Walmart, Monsanto and others are encouraging their supply-line farmers to use soil health practices to deliver better quality foods and satisfy consumer demands for healthy farming. Even Wrangler has rolled out a brand of high-end jeans, called its Rooted Collection, made of cotton grown using cover crops and no-till fields.

One of the remarkable things about the soil health movement is that it has been unearthed and championed by farmers themselves, with little initial support from government.

“The farmers believe in it because they’ve come up with it,” Blazure said.

“The Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance was tired of hearing my agency or Penn State Extension or conservation districts saying this won’t work around here when they were having success,” said Mark Goodson, state agronomist in the Pennsylvania office of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“When you hear from another farmer it’s a lot more believable than hearing it from a government person or an academic,” said Charles White, a Penn State assistant professor and Extension specialist in soil fertility and nutrient management. “The conversation has really changed. Credit pioneering farmers.”

Even today, the movement grows primarily through field demonstrations by farmers hoping to convert their neighbors. The Extension and NRCS are increasingly holding similar field days.

“That’s been the spark plug,” said Steve Groff of Lancaster County, a vegetable farmer who travels the world as a cover crop and no-till consultant. “It relies on farmers (realizing) that it’s about our own farms and we can actually grow our cash crops in a way that is most cost-effective.”

Like Bupp, many of the pioneers of soil health discovered its benefits by accident.

Thirty years ago, Lancaster County, PA, dairy farmer Jim Hershey tried no-tilling as a way to save time and fuel as he and his wife struggled to run the farm themselves. “There was nothing much talked about back then about keeping nutrients on our soil. And I thought the Chesapeake Bay was not even close to me and it’s not something I had to worry about.” A lot has changed since then. Hershey was a founding member of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance and has been its president since 2010.

“I like to say no-till without cover crops is still dead soil,” he said. “It’s not providing any nutrients to the soil biology and microbes to keep that soil alive, healthy, productive and able to recycle nutrients.”

Groff, who experiments with cover crop mixes with up to 13 different plant species to enrich the soil, only stumbled into the deep-rooted benefits of soil health. “We didn’t know about soil health back then. I did it because I didn’t want ditches in my field.”

What will it take to make soil health mainstream and the most common method of farming?

More peer-to-peer mentoring, reinforcing scientific research, nudging agri-business and consumer demand, experts say. Also needed is finding ways to reward farmers who use soil health practices, such as getting more for their products or discounts on federal farm insurance premiums.

Part of the resistance by some farmers is simply change. “We’ve been trying to tame nature and make soil into a monoculture for so long. We’ve always said you have to kill everything so we can plow the soil. And now we’re replacing the paradigm and it’s just hard,” Goodson observed.

Soil health advocates also find pushback from fertilizer, pesticide and equipment companies.

But Hershey, for one, thinks most farmers will see the light. “This is a revolution that’s occurring and it’s very promising for cleaner agricultural production. Much cleaner.”

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at 717-341-7270 or acrable@bayjournal.com.

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